France Withdraws Troops From Mali

Photo source: Al-Jazeera

By Naveed Qazi, Editor, Globe Upfront

Due to multiple obstructions by the ruling Malian regime, France has decided to withdraw its troops from the country in February 2022. In fact, the decision applies not only to France’s Barkhane force in the Sahel but also to the Takuba European force that Paris had been trying to forge along with its allies.  

Macron promised that the withdrawal would be done in an orderly manner. It was in 2021 when Macron first promised a walkout from Mali if the country veered into radicalism. A European special mission is withdrawing, too. The withdrawal is expected to be in a four to six-month period. 

The immediate cause is a diplomatic breakdown between France (and its allies) and the junta that overthrew Mali’s elected government in 2020. The junta led a second coup in 2021 and has since refused to hand power to civilians. It wants to keep power till 2025. The junta also recently kicked out the French ambassador and Danish commandos, who were helping it fight the jihadists. Rubbing more salt to the wounds, the regime even hired Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a move that gives Russia a foothold in the region. 

But, according to an article by Jacqueville and Paris, in The Economist, the roots lie even deeper. France’s campaign, which started so well, has been going badly. The Mali deployment has also been fraught with problems for France. Of the fifty-three soldiers killed serving in its Barkhane mission in west Africa, forty-eight of them died in Mali. The jihadists have continued to grow, despite the French army and the regional armies having won tactical victories. Although, Macron has denied that the mission has been a failure, and instead blames Mali’s coup leaders, and Chad for failing to fight extremism in the region.

Over the course of time, France was helped by European partners, such as the United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden, for providing crucial helicopter capabilities for air mobility. Other Europeans, including the Germans and the British, have sent troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, and smaller partners, such as Estonia and the Czech Republic, have shown highly important symbolic European solidarity by committing special forces to Takuba. France’s withdrawal from Mali now creates a problem for the previous multinational efforts to stabilise it, as French help will be less readily available when they come under attack. Some other troop contributors may also be looking to back out.

Incidentally, the withdrawal of Western forces, a long-standing demand by Mali's al-Qaeda militants, could create some room for negotiations out of the insurgency. The withdrawal, also, will have security implications for other countries in the Sahel region, who have been grappling with their own jihadist insurgencies.

French first arrived in Mali in 2013. It was a mad rush from bases in Senegal, Chad and Burkina Faso at that time. As jihadists were poised to capture Bamako, the capital, within days, there was no time for a multinational force arriving from the UN or ECOWAS, the regional bloc. Frances Hollande, then French president, wanted them to ‘get the job done’. Within hours they were attacking the jihadists, and within weeks France was recapturing cities such as Timbuktu and Gao. But, no one thought that this brief intervention would turn into a grinding nine-year-old struggle against Al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Before the troop pullout, Macron had been pushing for increased European military involvement alongside his forces.

It also shows how soaring the jihadist history in Mali is. After the ousting and killing of Libya's leader Muammar Gaddafi, Tuareg mercenaries who had been fighting for him returned home to Mali determined to fight for the independence of the north of the country. With Gaddafi's weapons, they formed an alliance with al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who were to become stronger partners. Together they took control of the north and threatened to seize control of the whole of Mali. In doing this, they exploited the political turmoil, poverty and weakness of local authorities.

While the French intervention was meant to help Mali combat extremism, the crisis in the region has metamorphosed into an internal ethnic conflict. In the Mopti region, there is a conflict between the Fulani and Dogons, as well as between the Bambara and Fulani. In Timbuktu and Gao, there is a conflict between the Touaregs and Arabs on the one hand, and between the Touaregs and the Songhais on the other.

France will continue to fight jihadists in the region, but its task will be all the more difficult as the militants carve out more havens in and around Mali. It still is viewed as an ‘occupying force,’ and a colonial power. 

The burning question which arises now is whether Mali’s neighbours can fight on their own, especially countries in the Gulf of Guinea. President Emmanuel Macron said that European forces would be centred on Niger, which will bring more balance to the fighting. But, somehow, Western allies are realising a worrying defeat in the region. Observers also see the withdrawal as humiliating. 


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